Book of the Month: God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar
My first reaction after reading God’s Little Soldier was that if I could write something like that, I would take sanyas. Not just form reading and writing, but from every other vocation as well.
Let me set the record straight. I am not given to exaggerations; not while praising someone, not while criticizing. So, when I was so loquacious in my admiration of the book, it was because it had indeed impressed me deeply.
An upfront warning though. If you are prone to taking offence, don’t read this book. It has potential of offending people left and right. Nothing is sacrosanct once Nagarkar picks up his pen. No religion, no philosophy, no country, no society, no God, no human, not even rationality and liberalism. And it doesn’t happen because the book is deliberately provocative. No. All it does in bare the story called life for all to see (read)!
Subversion, wit and an expansive narration (spanning three major religions, four major countries and events like 9/11) are of course there in the book. But what makes me marvel most of all is just how many layers are packed in those six-hundred odd pages. Yes – I see you raising your eyebrows. That’s a big book going by the industry standards. But it’s not big for the story it tells. Or I should say stories?
You will find many stories in it.
There is the story of sibling relationship, swinging to and for with sibling rivalry and loathing on one extreme, and fraternal affection and longing on the other.
There is the story of dangerous genius. He is capable of doing whatever he sets his mind to. Mostly, he just wants to save the world. But he is focused and single-minded to destruction, his own and everybody else’s. He always knows the right from the wrong. He doesn’t need to see somebody else’s point of view. They don’t measure up to his exacting standards. They are not worthy. And you are forced to face the dreadful question. Who will save the world from the genius?
If the single-minded genius destroying everything life-affirming is too dark for you, there is also the story of his reasonable, conscientious, moderate sibling. He is filled with doubts. Reasonable doubts, I must add. He finds it necessary to question every dogma, and rationally so. He is a humanist, adoringly so. But his reasonable doubts, rational questioning, and infinite humanism are strong to the point of being debilitating.
And there, dear world, lies your choice. Your only choice. And like the rational sibling declares somewhere in the book, whatever choice you make will be the wrong one.
If you had to look up to someone who would you look up to?
The self-assured, charming genius, who has one single goal in life to exclusion of everything else, who is sure of that being the only worth goal for everyone, and who has the ability, conviction and single-minded focus to achieve his goal irrespective of the collateral damage? Or the one who would need your reassurances and must be forced into a leadership role by the followers, who would never see one solution as the right one and constantly weigh pros and cons for different people, who would always see more than everyone else, who would confuse you to no end with his if’s and but’s, and who would do the best-possible thing, only if he can make up his mind to push for something at all?
We don’t have great options, do we? But I’m afraid I have digressed. Leadership questions weren’t on the mind of the author. But I could not help seeing the story that was on my mind in the book. I think that is the beauty of the book.
One of the most important and direct ideas the book puts forward is about religious extremists. Extremism is religion in itself. Extremists will find reasons to be cruel and violent in any religion. They usually just latch into the religion they are born into. But really, any other religion would have done just fine by them. Although it is sort of fantastic on author’s part to have the same character being fanatic under the umbrella of different religions, but that serves to elucidate the idea even better. The moderate sibling blatantly opines, ‘You remained faithful to your religion, the religion of extremism.’
There are many, many more stories. Of the charms and perils of Bollywood, of the writer’s struggles, of a family trying to adjust to reduced circumstances, of God(s) found and lost, of business, of politics… But it would not do to recommend a book for reading and tell you everything about it.
There is another warning before you pick it up. The book can be baffling. It isn’t always realistic or reasonable. The central character doesn’t grow at all. He remains the same throughout the book. The amount of kindness and forgiveness this monstrous genius receives from everyone around him is hard to believe, and so is the number of disparate (mostly destructive) things he manages to do in one lifetime. But don’t judge the book on that basis. It isn’t supposed to be judged on that basis.
Yes – the book is big, but it is worth a read. It’s okay if you have to skip some thinner bestsellers to finish this. The one time I got to ask a question to the author, I could not help asking how he managed to avoid getting banned. His rather self-effacing, but probably correct, reply was to the effect that not enough people have read the book for it to attract attention. That’s rather sad. Not the book escaping ban, but that it has not been read much more widely. Despite the fact that it isn’t some obscure indie publication (Harper Collins in the publisher) and that an earlier book by the author- Cuckold – was a Sahitya Academy Award winner.
Cato the Reader’s Favorite Quotes
Cato the Reader brings you some of his favorite quotes from the book.
If I could teach you anything, he told his pupils and apprentices, I would teach you irreverence. Irreverence towards your guru, irreverence towards all and sundry, but most of all irreverence towards yourself and your solemnities.
But blasphemy is always tempting. It is, after all, the first experience of freedom.
There is only one God and Her name is Life. She is the only one worthy of worship.
If you don’t know your fundamentals, it’s going to cripple your imagination, your concepts and your architecture. Not you but somebody else will pronounce whether something you want can be done or not.
Nostalgia is not just selective memory, it is the reinvention of the past as it never was.
It is the law of God, or nature, if you prefer, that pain, suffering and grief cannot be transferred by proxy. Neither empathy not sympathy but experience alone is the valid currency of affliction. It alone makes you a card-holding member and allows you to join the club of the wretched of the earth. All else is counterfeit.
Below your will find the description of the book from the publisher’s site.
From the backstreets of Bombay to the hallowed halls of Cambridge, from the mountains of Afghanistan to a monastery in California, the story of Zia Khan is an extraordinary rollercoaster ride; a compelling cliffhanger of a spiritual quest, about a good man gone bad and the brutalization of his soul.
Growing up in a well-to-do, cultured Muslim family in Bombay, Zia, a gifted young mathematician, is torn between the unquestioning certainties of his aunt’s faith and the tolerant, easy-going views of his parents.
At Cambridge University, his beliefs crystallize into a fervent orthodoxy, which ultimately leads him to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The burden of endemic violence and killings, however, takes its toll on Zia. Tormented by his need for forgiveness, he is then drawn reluctantly to Christ. But peace continues to elude him, and Zia is once again driven to seek out causes to defend and fight for, whatever be the sacrifices involved.
Posited against Zia is his brother, Amanat, a writer whose life is severely constrained by sickness, even as his mind is liberated by doubt. Theirs is a relationship that is as much a blood bond as it is an opaque wall of incomprehension. Weaving together the narratives of the extremist and the liberal, God’s Little Soldier underscores the incoherent ambiguities of good and evil, and the tragic conflicts that have riven people and nations.
Other Books By the Author
Finally, if God’s Little Soldier is not quite your kind of book, you should still give a try to some other books by the author. Because one thing is certain. All his works are very different from each other. My affair with Nagarkar had started with Cuckold. The narrative is more conventional and less jarring here, the story is clear, but the genius (of writer) isn’t missing. Ravan and Eddie and its sequel The Extras are hilarious, but subversive and bold at the same time. His first novel in Marathi Saat Sakkam Trechalis is considered a milestone in the language’s literature and English translation goes by the name Seven Sixes are Forty Three. I am yet to read his recently released Bedtime Story. Needless to say the anticipation is palpable!
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